We are inured to the presence of a small number of neo-Nazis among us. We are accustomed to the rants that emerge periodically from the mouth of Minister Lewis Farrakhan. But are we at all prepared for the possible emergence of widespread anti-Semitism in the United States?
Today anti-Semitic words are rarely heard, even in private, except on the very fringes of our society. Has America moved beyond anti-Semitism, or have anti-Semitic attitudes just been buried a bit deeper in the American psyche? If Mr. Gibson can, at the prompting of a few tequilas, go into an anti-Semitic diatribe, what might other people -- less well-off, less worldly people -- say, and perhaps do, under certain circumstances?
What circumstances do I have in mind? Let us imagine a not implausible scenario. In the Middle East fighting breaks out between Israel and a coalition of Islamic states, including perhaps Iran, or possibly Egypt and Jordan under new, radical regimes (the existing governments in these two countries lack popular support and are by no means secure against the forces of Islamic fundamentalism). The fighting escalates to include the employment of weapons of mass destruction. As a result, U.S. forces intervene on Israel's behalf. Muslim oil-producing countries then retaliate by imposing an oil embargo against the U.S., which is joined by other anti-American states like Venezuela. At the same time terrorists carry out devastating attacks against U.S. citizens and interests worldwide. Meanwhile, U.S. forces fighting alongside Israel suffer heavy casualties, while at home the economy slows dramatically as a result of energy shortages and skyrocketing prices. The stock market crashes, and millions of Americans find themselves in desperate straits. At that point, does a search for scapegoats begin? Does the average American start to say something like "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world"?
Can we simply dismiss this as inconceivable? In 1929, just before the onset of the Great Depression, the Nazis held 12 seats in the German Reichstag, and Adolf Hitler was little more than a comic figure on the world stage. In 1930 the Nazi Party suddenly increased its number of Reichstag deputies to 107, in 1932 it became the largest political party in Germany, and a year later Hitler became chancellor. Millions of mainstream, middle-class Germans had changed their views and their votes almost overnight, in spite of the overt and disgusting anti-Semitism of the Nazis. Attitudes can change very quickly under certain circumstances.
Can it happen here? Do we want to find out? Perhaps Mel Gibson has a lesson for us, after all.